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July 16, 2006
Strauss made 112 and 83 on his England debut only two years ago, against New Zealand in May 2004, and almost before he had arrived he was being spoken of as a Future England Captain. Come Old Trafford in a fortnight's time however, and Strauss will, in all probability, be a Former England Captain as well. Brevity may be the soul of wit, but it's not an entirely ribtickling situation. Fortunately Strauss is pretty cool about auditioning on the grandest stage in the game.
"I'm probably helped by the fact that Lord's is a very good wicket," he said modestly, after chaperoning his team to a healthy lead of 341. "I've played here a number of years [for Middlesex] and I feel I've learnt how to deal with the slope. It's the best wicket to bat on in England, and if you look at the number of guys who've got hundreds here since 2000, I'm not the only one."
In fact it's 32 hundreds in 14 Tests, which tells a story of its own. But for a team that's seemed desperately directionless for the best part of a season, there could have been no better moment for the skipper, finally, to stand out from the crowd. "As captain you do lead by example," he agreed afterwards, "and one way to do that is to score runs."
In fact, in Strauss's unique situation, it is the only way. Yesterday in the field, he was a man in search of an authority that he dared not muster. The parameters of his tenure are only too clear. Michael Vaughan, it was confirmed at Canterbury last week, remains the England captain regardless of his ongoing injury problems. Andrew Flintoff, the designated stand-in, is set to resume command later this week. "Over several years, [Strauss] might leave a strong culture of excellence for those who follow," wrote David Hopps in The Guardian this week. "Over five days he can do little more than make a rousing speech and take out a slip."
At the start of the recent one-day series against Sri Lanka, Strauss admitted he didn't feel like a captain because he was "still a fill-in for a fill-in". By the time England been pummelled to a 5-0 whitewash, the country didn't feel he was a captain either. The knives haven't exactly been sharpening, but Nasser Hussain did go so far as to question the body language and aura that his former team-mate was displaying. "From what I have seen so far, Andrew Flintoff is a better captain," he wrote in The Daily Mail. "Freddie has the presence I want to see from Strauss."
They certainly can't let that happen to Flintoff, and for that reason, Strauss is the one who feels the extra pinch. Though he would doubtless baulk at the comparison, Strauss needs to be a leader in the mould of David Beckham, because come tomorrow, it won't be his fielding positions that make the difference between victory and defeat, but the manner in which his team-mates, Steve Harmison and Monty Panesar, rise up, follow his example and spearhead England's four-pronged attack. Momentum and morale are the keys to success in this Test.
And with morale in mind, Strauss spent much of the post-match press conference in a self-flagellating mood, as he prostrated himself in front of his luckless team-mate, Ian Bell, and begged forgiveness for running him out as he scrambled for his 100th run. "The circumstances weren't the best if I'm being honest," he admitted of his moment of glory, "so that dampened my enthusiasm a little bit. Being on 99 somehow manages to change sane men into idiots. I feel very sorry for Belly, but it's one of those things that happens on a cricket pitch."
But for those who like their omens (and folk of that ilk tend to like their cricket as well) Bell's misfortune might yet prove auspicious for England. "I just had to remember what Nasser said to me a couple of years ago when I went up to the dressing-room," said Strauss, recalling the moment he was run out with just 17 runs needed for his second hundred of the match. "He just said: 'Sorry mate, I'm an idiot', that sort of thing. But fortunately, Nasser went on and won the game for us, and that is all that matters."
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